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Case to block Obama Center in federal court today

The Barack Obama Presidential Library, 2500 Golf Rd., Hoffman Estates. Photo for the Sun-Times by Neesa Sweet

WASHINGTON — A lawsuit seeking to block the Obama Presidential Center from locating in landmarked Jackson Park — which takes issue with the fact the center won’t house an official presidential library — will go before a judge Wednesday in federal court.

Hours before the morning hearing, the Obama Foundation on Tuesday night released a letter of intent between the foundation and the National Archives and Records Administration, which oversees the presidential library system. The letter of intent spells out the first details of what will be a model for dealing with presidential records in this digital era.The letter of intent, finalized on Sept. 21, is a broad outline of the evolving relationship between NARA and the Obama Foundation, which will pay to digitize former President Barack Obama’s records.

When Obama left the White House, the National Archives and Records Administration shipped his records and artifacts to a bland warehouse at 2500 Golf Road in Hoffman Estates.

That building, across the street from a strip mall — and not marked by any sign — is now the official temporary home of the Barack Obama Presidential Library.

The northwest suburban facility is closed to the public.

The documents, other records and artifacts from Obama’s two terms in office were hauled to the northwest suburbs before Obama and former first lady Michelle decided the planned South Side center would not be part of the federal presidential library system.

The letter of intent calls for the Obama Foundation to pay up to $3.3 million to the NARA Trust Fund to pay for the move of the artifacts and records from Hoffman Estates to the NARA-run facility that will permanently house them.

The first installment of $300,000 was paid in August. The location of the permanent home of the Obama Presidential Library has not been announced.

The Obama Foundation agreed in the letter of intent to “digitize the unclassified analog Obama Presidential records at the Hoffman Estates facility, to be completed no later than Aug. 31, 2021. The Foundation also agrees to create digital images of the artifacts transferred to the NARA’s custody at the end of the Obama administration.”

The Hoffman Estates facility includes “roughly 30 million pages of paper and more than 30,000 artifacts of all kinds: clothing, artwork, keepsakes, memorabilia, and more,” according to Foundation Digitization Manager and resident librarian, Emily Shaw.

NARA agreed to loan to the Obama Presidential Center records, artifacts and other digital assets — as well as physical records — for display at the Obama Center presidential museum.

A selling point, at least originally, of giving away landmarked public park land for the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago was that it would include an official government-run presidential library.

On May 3, 2017 — the same day the Obamas were in Chicago unveiling a “conceptual” model for the Obama Center in Jackson Park— NARA and the Obama Foundation announced the official library would be someplace else, a detail the Obamas did not mention.

That decision meant that Obama did not have to raise millions of dollars for the endowment NARA would have demanded, or pay higher construction costs for his Obama Center to be in compliance with NARA design, records storage and security specifications.

The lawsuit, filed by Protect Our Parks, a group of public park activists, asserts that the Obama Foundation sold the project to the Chicago Park District and the city of Chicago as a “bait and switch,” with the carrot being that there would be an official NARA-run Obama Library in Jackson Park.

The city, in a court brief filed in advance of the Wednesday hearing, argued that the Obama Center will have an ongoing relationship with NARA through exhibits and other ways, even if there is not an official presidential library on the Jackson Park site.

NARA and the Obama Foundation said in the letter they will work in “good faith” to complete the final agreement by Dec. 31.